OWINGS MILLS – Barreling past the line of scrimmage at high speeds, teeth gritted and fists clenched, the Baltimore Ravens’ defense repeatedly crashed into Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub.
Schaub kept hitting the ground, sacked four times during the Ravens’ 29-14 victory Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
The pain Schaub experienced was born out of the Ravens’ determination to upgrade their pass rush after an unusually quiet showing last season.
After slumping to a franchise-worst 27 sacks last season, the Ravens already have 15 sacks through five games and are on pace to record 48 sacks for the season. They rank eighth in the NFL in sacks per pass play.
“What improved? Just the sheer fact that we didn’t reach our goal last year,” veteran defensive end Cory Redding said. “That’s just how this unit rolls. We want to be top five in every category, preferably top three.”
Once the NFL lockout ended in late July, the Ravens’ defense was issued a reminder from defensive line coach Clarence Brooks about its shortcomings last year.
The number “27” was emblazoned on a chalkboard, and circled for emphasis. The message wasn’t exactly subtle, but it was an effective one.
“Our guys took it to heart,” Redding said. “One of the first things we did when we walked in this building is we put the number on the board and circled it. We emphasized that. That’s how much we wanted to get the sack numbers up. It’s about lining up, beating the man in front of you and getting to the quarterback.”
Between that determination, the presence of Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and a renewed focus on blitzing more under aggressive new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, the Ravens suddenly have a more formidable pass rush.
The Ravens are also far less predictable than a year ago when it wasn’t hard to tell what kind of scheme former defensive coordinator Greg Mattison was going to run. He was an advocate of three-man and four-man rushes in most situations, rarely bringing the house the way Pagano does.
“Chuck is doing a great job,” Redding said. “He’s dialing up the calls really well, mixing it up. Chuck is just phenomenal as a play-caller and gets guys to play hard for him. Everybody loves him. He’s a good dude.”
Against the Texans, All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis, Ngata, outside linebacker Jarret Johnson and promising rookie defensive end Pernell McPhee all registered sacks.
At times, Schaub didn’t seem to know where the rush was coming from.
“Our scheme is mixing up a lot of four-man stuff and pressures and simulated pressure and guys are winning one-on-one battles,” Johnson said. “The other thing is we’ve had leads. They’re throwing the ball. It allows you rush the passer. You start putting teams away and you get more sacks. Part of the scheme we run is taking our big guys, our rushers, and putting them in areas to draw attention and then dropping back.”
The Ravens’ pass rush is headlined by Suggs, who has four sacks to rank seventh in the AFC.
A four-time Pro Bowl selection, Suggs is the Ravens’ all-time leader with 72 ½ career sacks.
“Talented, explosive, can run, he’s the whole deal,” Johnson said. “He understands pressure, understands everything. He’s the leading sack guy for a reason.”
The Ravens have also been nurturing a burgeoning talent in McPhee, their fifth-round draft pick from Mississippi State.
Operating as a situational pass rusher, McPhee has two sacks and one forced fumble.
“The kid’s going to be a stud,” Redding said. “He’s got a ton of talent. The kid has a great motor. He’s going to be great for this team.”
“Young guy, but huge upside,” Johnson said. “He’s got a ton of talent, real explosive and everything. He’s right where he needs to be. He’s sitting back and he’s learning from veterans. He’s in the process of learning how to be a player, but the talent side is through the roof.”
McPhee has also recovered one fumble and deflected a pass for the NFL’s third-ranked defense.
After posting a staggering 32 ½ sacks in two seasons in junior college, McPhee only had seven sacks in two seasons in the Southeastern Conference.
However, he’s proving to be a quick study at the NFL level.
“I’m just flying off the ball, getting off the ball real quick and hustling until the play is over,” McPhee said. “I feel real comfortable. I got used to the speed of the game, got used to the playbook.”
McPhee uses his long wait to hear his name called during the draft to provide motivational fuel.
“I’ve always got a chip on my shoulder,” McPhee said. “It’s just being hungry always. I’m a lot more aggressive than most people out there.”
The 6-foot-3, 280-pounder had a pair of solo tackles against the St. Louis Rams, equaling his production against the Tennessee Titans.
“I’m very impressed, to say the least," outside linebacker Paul Kruger said. “There’s not enough you can say about the kind of guy he is, works his butt off in practice and just does everything right.
“I respect the guy a lot. We’re good friends and I think he’s a hell of a player. Being the age he is and it being his rookie year, you can’t say enough about what he’s doing.”
McPhee has performed so adeptly that he’s likely to earn an increased role going forward.
“Pernell gives us high energy,” coach John Harbaugh said. “He is a really explosive player. He has embraced that role on third down because that’s what he has right now, but he wants more. He is hungry for a bigger role.
“We tell guys you earn that. You earn that by how you play, and I think he’s on track to earn even more time out there. He has done a nice job.”
Despite all the praise, McPhee remains humble and relatively content.
“I really want to play my role, whatever role coach has got for me, whatever they put in for the game plan,” McPhee said. “I’m just respectful that they’re still getting me on the field. I love my role and what I’m doing now.”